Iran's Decades of Christian Persecution

The Iranian church grows as brutal crackdowns increase.

Evangelical Christians in Iran “have crafted a movement in the name of Christianity” in the same way that members of the Taliban “have inserted themselves into Islam like…parasite[s],” Tehran governor, Morteza Tamaddon recently declared. Tamaddon praised the arrest of over 70 Iranian Christians and vowed to identify and arrest more Christians, whom he labeled “deviant” and “corrupt,” according to a January 7 press statement from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Elam, a ministry to the church in Iran, reported that armed, plain-clothed security forces broke into the homes of sleeping Christians from the evangelical house church and Armenian Christian communities early on the morning of December 26. Eleven of the twenty-five Christians known to be arrested were released after days of intense interrogation. The other fourteen remain in prison and have not been heard from since the arrest, although no official charges have been brought against them. Elam also reported that these Christians are probably being held in Interrogation Block 209 in the basement of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. This is the common practice for dealing with Christians under arrest, according to Iranian sources. Reports of as many as 60 further arrests have also come from Tehran, Mashhad, Isfahan and Urumieh. These Christian prisoners join others such as Pastor Vahik Abrahamian and his wife Sonia Keshish-Avanesian, and Arash Kermanjani and his wife Arezo Teymouri, who were arrested in September.

Long before the rest of the world began to get insomnia thinking about a “nuclear Iran,” Christians in the Islamic Republic were losing more than just sleep. For decades, Iranian Christians have lost their human rights, their freedom, and their lives. In the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s, Christian persecution in Iran was directed at the Anglican Church. In the 1990’s the Islamic regime targeted the broader church, murdering many top Christian leaders in an attempt to destroy Christianity in Iran. The danger continues today. Iranian Christians are persecuted, discriminated against, arrested, and even killed. But the Iranian church continues to grow, and reports surface of spiritual revival going on in Iran’s underground churches.

Soon after the Islamic Revolution, the Anglican Church in Iran was specifically targeted because so many Anglicans were converts from Islam. The Episcopal Church USA of the same era and other western expressions of Anglicanism, such as the Church of England, were enamored by religious pluralism. Evangelism was viewed with embarrassment or even hostility. But Anglicans in Iran welcomed Muslims who wanted to know Jesus. For this the church paid a high price.

The first post-Islamic Revolution martyrs were Anglicans. Islamists cut the throat of the Reverend Arastoo Sayyah, a Muslim convert, in his own office in Shiraz, southwest Iran, on February 19, 1979. In October of that same year, the Rt. Reverend Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, also a Muslim convert, and his wife, Margaret, miraculously survived an assassination attempt in their own bedroom. Dehqani-Tafti, the first Persian Anglican bishop in Iran, was forced into exile for the last ten years of his episcopate after the attack. But in May of 1980, the Dehqani-Taftis’ twenty-four year old son, Bahram, was shot to death on the street in Tehran. Bishop Dehqani-Tafti believed that the Islamic Revolution felt threatened because the Christians were building “a Persian church,” and “a strong and intelligent Christianity” complemented an authentic Persian culture more than Islam. Church property was confiscated, and other clergy, both Persian and British, were arrested and imprisoned. Many more of the Iranian clergy and church members were killed for their faith, and Anglican and other Christian churches in Iran were forced to go underground.

The Iranian regime attempted to intimidate and suppress the church, but persecution produced the opposite effect. Whereas before the Islamic Revolution there were only some 200-300 Iranian converts from Islam, by 1992 Iranian Christians International (ICI) reported that there were 13,300 Iranian converts from Islam around the world, with 6,700 living right in Iran.

As the church grew in the 1990’s, the regime began a concerted effort to eliminate all of the church’s top evangelical Christian leaders. Most were targeted by a death squad, widely believed to be operating on behalf of the official government, even to the level of the President, according to the analysis of testimony received by Middle East Concern, a human rights organization. Time in March 1994 reported that the decisions “to assassinate opponents at home or abroad” were made by “The Supreme National Security Council” chaired by the then President of Iran, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Islamic law (Shari’a) became a weapon to eliminate influential Christians. One of Iran’s key evangelical leaders, Pastor Hossein Soodmand, was killed, not by a death squad, but through execution. In December 1990, Soodmand, 55, was sentenced to death in a Shari’a court in Mashad, northern Iran, charged with apostasy and with operating a Christian bookstore and an illegal church. He had converted from Islam in 1964 and had been an evangelist and Assemblies of God minister for twenty-four years.

Soodmand’s fellow pastors pleaded for clemency with the Dayro-E-Tasalamat (an Ombudsman/Muslim cleric whose title means “he who hears the cries of the oppressed”).

But it became increasingly clear that the Islamists in Iran were more interested in oppressing Christians than in hearing their cries. At the insistence of the Ombudsman, Pastor Soodmand was hanged on December 3, 1990 in Mashad, which in Farsi means “place of martyrdom.” He left behind a wife who going blind, and four children.

In late 1993, another pastor, Mehdi Dibaj, was sentenced to death for apostasy. Dibaj was born to a wealthy, influential Muslim family, but became a Christian as a teenager. An Assemblies of God minister, he was imprisoned for more than nine years for his faith. During those years he was beaten, subjected to “mock executions,” and spent two full years in solitary confinement in a tiny, unlit cell. In addition, his wife had been forced to divorce him and marry a Muslim.

Dibaj appeared before the Sari Court of Justice in Sari, northern Iran, on December 3, 1993. He firmly but compassionately told the court, “They say ‘You were a Muslim and you have become a Christian.’ This is not so. For many years I had no religion. After searching and studying I accepted God’s call and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ in order to receive eternal life.”

The General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God in Iran, Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr, sent abroad word of Dibaj’s impending execution. He drew international attention for his fellow pastor, but put his own life on the line. Bishop Haik, as he was fondly called, was not willing to keep silent about the plight of Iranian Christians. He said: “If we go to jail or die for our faith, we want the whole Christian world to know what is happening to their brothers and sisters.”

An international campaign to free Mehdi Dibaj sprang up as a result of Bishop Haik’s efforts. Advocates included members of the British Parliament and the Papal Nuncio in Iran. Thanks to pressure from around the world, instead of being executed, Dibaj was released on January 16, 1994. But then three days later, January 19, 1994, Bishop Haik disappeared from the street in Tehran. On January 30 the authorities revealed that they had “found” Hovsepian Mehr’s body on January 20.

Haik Hovsepian Mehr’s murder was a terrible blow to the church in Iran. He had modeled effective and strong leadership in dealing with a hostile government, refusing to be silenced and refusing to adhere to all of the oppressive restrictions placed on the church. He was exemplary as an Armenian Iranian who reached out to and loved all Iranians, including Muslim Iranians. And he was also a gifted musician who wrote and recorded over sixty hymns in the Persian language for the church. One of Bishop Haik’s songs, sung by him, is on the Pray for Iran website, accompanying a slide show of Iran’s Christian martyrs. Today, all four of Bishop Haik’s children are involved in Christian ministry, as well as filmmaking.

Then on June 24, 1994, Pastor Mehdi Dibaj disappeared after leaving a Christian retreat in Karaj to return to Tehran for his daughter Fehreshteh’s sixteenth birthday party. And while the Iranian Christians were still reeling from Dibaj’s abduction, another church leader, the Rev. Tateos Mikaelian, the senior pastor of St. John Armenian Evangelical Church (Presbyterian Church of Iran) was abducted on June 29. Mikaelian, who had taken over as president of the Council of Evangelical Ministers when Bishop Haik was murdered, was a scholar of philosophy and Persian literature who had translated some 60 books into Persian.

On July 2, 1994, authorities called his son to say that they had found Rev. Mikaelian’s body in a freezer in a home in Tehran. The cause of death was said to be multiple gunshots to the head. Three days later, the police also informed Mehdi Dibaj’s family that they had found his body buried in a park in Tehran. He had been stabbed in the heart, but also had rope burns on his neck.

Mohammed Bagher Yusefi, 34, was the seventh Iranian Christian leader martyred since the 1979 Revolution. Also a convert from Islam, Yusefi was pastor of all of the Assemblies of God churches in the northwestern province of Manzandaran. He and his wife had taken care of two of Pastor Mehdi Dibaj’s sons during the nine years while Dibaj was imprisoned for his faith. Yusefi, whose church members called him Ravanbakhsh, “Soul Giver,” had left his home in Sari, the capital of Manzandaran province, at 6:00 a.m. on September 28, 1996 to study and pray. He was found by authorities, hanging from a tree in a forest outside Sari that evening.

Many other Christian leaders and church members have been killed in Iran over the past three decades, but to list them all would take an Iranian version of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Two cases deserve special attention, though, because they bear witness to the faithfulness of Iran’s Christians through succeeding generations. Happily, these did not end in martyrdom.

On September 26, 2006, Fehreshteh Dibaj and her husband Amir “Reza” Montazami, leaders of an independent house church in Mashhad, were arrested at their apartment and taken to a secret police station belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Montazami, who was 35 at that time, had converted to Christianity when he was in his early 20’s, and Fehreshteh, 28 at the time of her arrest, is the youngest daughter of Reverend Mehdi Dibaj. The daughter of a martyr had become a house church leader herself rather than rejecting a dangerous faith or rejecting God for seemingly allowing such evil and injustice to take place. The Montazamis were released on October 5, 2006 after Montazami’s elderly parents posted bail by turning over the title of a $25,000 property.

Then in August of 2008, a Christian pastor and youth worker at a Tehran church was ordered by the Iranian government to report to the Ministry of Intelligence office in Mashdad. The pastor, Ramtin Soodman, 35, returned to the place where his father, Hossein Soodmand, was hanged 18 years before. Soodman was arrested on August 20, 2008. The anxiety over Soodman’s incarceration was exacerbated by the Iranian Parliament’s first approval of a bill to punish apostasy with the death penalty in September. But he was released on bail on October 21, 2008. Hopefully this pattern of arrest and release upon large sums of bail will be repeated with the Christians imprisoned now. It may be extortion, but at least it is not execution.

Governor Tamaddon of Tehran’s comparison of evangelical Christians to the Taliban is, of course, absurd. But it is an interesting claim he makes, none the less. Whether or not the Taliban could be described as a parasite, living off of Islam, or, as many of us believe, just a movement that exposes the true nature of Islam, evangelical Christians could never be described as parasitical. They are the heart of Iranian Christianity and its lifeblood, whether they are in the evangelical house churches or the more mainline churches. They are the salt and light of the Bible. And over the decades, through the generations, they continue to offer that salty, shining witness that has the potential to transform their nation.

Faith J. H. McDonnell directs The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).